Determining a Field of Study

Professional Writing

Many entry-level positions are available to students who possess a B.A. in Professional Writing without further study. Depending on their coursework, experiences, and personal preferences, B.A. graduates might seek jobs in publishing houses, public-relations firms, government agencies, industrial firms, or any other office environment in which communication specialists are needed. Recent GVSU graduates of the Professional Writing program are working full-time at Steelcase (writing and designing training materials), Schuler's Books (working in public relations), and the Department of Public Safety (working in public relations and writing grants).

Professional Writing graduates who wish to do graduate work might consider one of four graduate-school paths: professional writing; technical communication; rhetoric and composition; and literary non-fiction. A good way to see what is involved in graduate school is to look at the description and requirements of one particular program. The University of Louisville has a very good description of their program and their application procedure. Something very much like this is what you might expect to encounter in many graduate programs in rhetoric and composition.

University of Louisville Graduate Studies in Composition

M.A. in Professional Writing 
Programs in professional writing generally prepare students to create proposals, reports, forms, press releases, technical manuals, user documentation, press kits, standards manuals, newsletters, slide presentations, speeches, brochures, and other communication materials used in government, business, and industry. Because professional writers must perform an exceptionally wide range of tasks in a variety of different environments, most M.A. programs are designed to maximize students' flexibility by developing their problem-solving capabilities and analytical skills. A typical M.A. program involves about 36 credit-hours and usually includes a professional internship. Graduation requirements typically include second-language proficiency, high-level computer literacy, successful oral and written examinations, and either a traditional thesis or a final portfolio of work.

M.S. in Technical Communication
Programs in technical communication focus on the theory and practice of text design and the analysis of communication systems and contexts. Besides working with many of the same documents as professional-writing students, technical communication students learn to integrate complex visual information into written texts, create multimedia and hypermedia programs, and translate specialized technical language for various audiences. A typical M.S. program involves at least 30 credit-hours and usually includes a cooperative education assignment of some kind. Graduation requirements typically include high-level computer literacy, including work in electronic graphics, successful oral and written examinations, and either a traditional thesis or a final portfolio of work.

Ph.D in Rhetoric and Composition
Programs in rhetoric and composition prepare students for careers in academics, usually college teaching. Classes focus on the history, theory, and application of the disciplines of rhetoric and composition, with intersecting course work in literature, cultural studies, linguistics, learning theory, and literacy studies. Often graduate students in rhetoric and composition supplement their course work with a teaching assistantship, which typically involves teaching two sections of first-year composition per semester. Most Ph.D. programs require at least 54 credit-hours of course work after the Master's degree and an additional 18 credit-hours of work on a dissertation. Graduation requirements include second-language proficiency, successful oral and written examinations, and a book-length dissertation.

M.F.A. in Non-Fiction Writing
Many M.F.A. programs, which traditionally focus on fiction, poetry, and drama, now encourage or allow students to specialize in literary or creative non-fiction. Classes include both literature seminars and writing workshops. A typical M.F.A. program requires 36 to 48 credit-hours, including a book-length thesis or creative manuscript. Most M.F.A. graduates go on to careers in writing, although some pursue teaching careers on the college or secondary level.

Application Requirements
Graduate school applications most often require undergraduate transcripts, a letter of application, three letters of reference, a sample of scholarly or creative work, and GRE scores. Most graduate schools list their specific application and graduation requirements on their web-sites. For more information about specific universities offering advanced M.A., M.S., or Ph.D degrees in writing, please make an appointment with a faculty member in the Professional Writing program. 

Creative Writing

If you wish to extend your creative writing education after GVSU, you have an array of choices. For instance, you'll find shorter-term summer workshops all over the country, many set in scenic geography. These range from a weekend to two weeks in length and are frequently led by a known writer in your genre. Many require no more for admission than a writing sample and fee. They are good places to charge your writing batteries, but they don't necessarily provide the sustaining elements of community, rigor, and duration. To get these elements, you'll want to pursue your education more formally.

There are at least four post-baccalaureate creative writing degrees: the Master of Arts with creative writing emphasis (MA), the Master of Fine Arts (MFA), the Doctorate in Arts (DA), and the traditional doctorate (PhD).

The MA degree would benefit a writer wishing more grounding in English. In other words, the study of literature and criticism takes precedence over the actual production of creative writing. Often, the MA can be accomplished in two years. The thesis may be academic or may be creative, depending on the institution.

The MFA, also a two-year degree, will usually be the other way around: you'll study literature and criticism, but you will also present your creative writing to workshops led by well-known authors. Sometimes a literary journal is associated with an MFA program, so you may get the chance to edit. Your thesis will be a collection of your fiction or poetry.

The DA is a hybrid between the MFA and the PhD. It takes a year longer than the Masters, but emphasizes creative writing over academic study. The dissertation will be a creative work of some length.

The PhD is generally a three year (minimum) degree after either the MA or MFA. It is much more rigorous academically than the DA. In PhD programs that encourage creative writing (not many do), you'll receive workshop criticism of your stories, poems, or plays. The dissertation may be academic or may be creative.

In regard to any program you consider, match the actual requirements to your needs, desires, and abilities. Consider where the program is, who teaches there, what the foreign language requirements are, whether you can get a teaching fellowship, and so forth. Also consider career plans, because not too many are lucky enough to earn their entire living by selling their art. A Master's degree, and perhaps the DA, may help you get employed as an editor or teacher. However, for university teaching, you'll want the PhD.

Advanced degree program application deadlines often fall between January and March of the year you want to start. To get ready on time:

Ask two professors who know your work for references. It would be a good idea if one reference were for an academic subject and the other for creative writing.

Apply on time to take the October or December Graduate Record Exam. You may need both the general examination and the examination in English.

Obtain information on various colleges that might interest you. You can probably start by phoning them.

Gather a writing sample. For the moment, bring together your best academic essay, your creative writing manifesto, and your finest 8- 10 poems or two stories or plays. 

Draft a letter of introduction. Try to sound like a person, not a professor.

Apply to the programs--as many as you're interested in. Don't let the application fees deter you--you improve your odds of acceptance by casting a wide net. Each program's application will ask you for a different sheaf of paper, but if you have all the above on hand, you'll be able to provide.


This commonly means the PhD, which requires 3-7 years of study after the baccalaureate degree. Students who do not feel ready to make that commitment can do a Master's Degree in English, which requires 30-45 hours of graduate-level classes, although programs that fund Master's degree students with teaching assistantships and scholarships are becoming very rare. Some well-respected PhD granting institutions, such as the University of Michigan, no longer offer the MA degree since there is not a great deal one can do with it. Even junior colleges have become accustomed to hiring PhDs. Most public school teachers will eventually earn a Master's degree, but often in education and usually piecemeal during summer vacations. Because holding a Master's degree affects salary, school districts prefer to hire beginning teachers without one.

The PhD is usually 90-100 hours of graduate class credit beyond the undergraduate degree. The remaining hours that comprise the 120 hours needed for the PhD are credit given for completing the dissertation. Aside from requiring a four-year proficiency in a foreign language, PhD students must also pass comprehensive examinations on the course work they have completed. Some universities have distribution requirements at the PhD level, that is courses that are required, some do not. Typically, the student preparing for comprehensive examinations assembles a committee of faculty members to oversee the examination and help develop reading lists on which the test will be based. Often these reading lists are well over a hundred titles. The comprehensive exams usually last two or three days.

Once the student has passed comprehensives, another committee of faculty is assembled to oversee the dissertation process, which will culminate in a book-length, scholarly manuscript. Dissertations can be written in as little as a year (rarely) and may take several years to complete, depending on how much research has already been done and whether or not the student works well with the committee. When the dissertation is complete, the student then has a defense of that dissertation. The committee convenes and examines the student on the dissertation. Students who pass their defenses are allowed to graduate; those who do not must rewrite and complete more research until they are ready for another defense.

Completing the PhD is a lengthy, time-consuming, difficult process with, unfortunately, an uncertain reward. According to a New York Times editorial on June 29, 1997, only twenty-five percent of college and university faculty are currently tenured. Of the faculty who do not have tenure, only forty percent are eligible to apply. What that means is that nearly one-half of college teachers work part time, and seldom by choice. Thus, many of students who earn the PhD will never have tenure-track positions. Many will spend their professional careers working part-time at several institutions at once, often with lower salaries and fewer or no benefits, or they will leave education. There is an over supply of PhDs in the US, particularly in the Liberal Arts, and the situation is getting worse.

Universities must admit a certain number of PhD students to have teachers for the basic undergraduate classes, such as First-Year Composition and Introduction to Literature. In addition, offering the PhD confers status and rank on an institution, and professors enjoy teaching graduate students. The reality, however, is that many of these students will spend a number of years and thousands of dollars pursuing teaching positions that don't exist.

One result is that concerned universities have tightened their admissions requirements. They have also begun working with PhD students from the first year so that they are trained to give conference presentations and publish steadily throughout the PhD process so they are more employable. Another result is that many newly-minted PhDs take several years of temporary positions and continue publishing and presenting and applying for tenure-track jobs. Therefore, before deciding to the PhD, students must first consider the realities of the job market, since the number of tenure-track positions has been declining for nearly a decade and will continue to do so. Are they willing to spend five to seven years working extremely hard--taking classes, teaching classes, publishing and presenting--for an uncertain result?

If the answer is yes, then it becomes critical to choose a PhD program carefully, selecting one that works extensively to prepare students for the demands of the job market by giving financial support to attend conferences to present papers, by working with students to turn seminar papers into publishable scholarly articles, and that guides students into dissertation topics that will be attractive to hiring committees. Since the number of presentations and publications once required to earn tenure is now required to be considered for a position, the beginning graduate student must begin planning a professional career immediately and must have thoughtful guidance to do so. Aspiring PhD students may also benefit from reading two texts published by the Modern Language Association: A Career Guide for PhDs and PhD Candidates in English and Foreign Languages, and The MLA Guide to the Job Search: A Handbook for Departments and for PhDs and PhD Candidates in English and Foreign Languages. Both are available from the Modern Language Association, 10 Astor Place, New York, NY 10003-6981, (212) 614-6384.

Page last modified February 1, 2021